Sports Stigmas

Stephen NoffkeContributor IMarch 8, 2009

Disclaimer: This is just a commentary on the landscape of sports and is no way supposed to be taken as an attack on any individual or group of individuals. This is supposed to be a sociological view on the world of sports.

This article is going to look at two stigmas that are prevalent in sports today. The first stigma is that white players play with more heart while black players are more athletic. The second stigma is why certain sports are less racially diverse then other sports.

So a few weeks back my fellow writer Mark Fodor wrote a quick piece on Michael Jordan. In this article he linked this article written by Michael Lewis for the NY Times. If you have not read it yet, it is a fantastic article for anyone to read, not just NBA fans. You might recognize the name Michael Lewis from the book Moneyball which he wrote with Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, another fantastic read.

In the piece he made a very thought provoking comment, “Is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character—take a charge, scramble for a loose ball—are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt?”

It is a very good point when you think about it and I would like to take it a step further. How come we look at reigning NCAA player of the year Tyler Hansbrough (white player) as a player who plays with more heart and intensity on the court then anybody else? Why is it that we look at his teammate Ty Lawson (black player) and everybody raves about how fast he can get down the lane and how high he can jump? Are these two players really that different?

Does Hansbrough really try that much harder then Lawson? Are we saying that Lawson doesn’t’ try as hard or work as hard to be at the top of his game compared to Hansbrough? Is Lawson really that much more athletic than Hansbrough?

This stigma’s are not just in college basketball, they also appear in all collegiate and pro sports. If you watched the NCAA College Football National Title game, you noticed the love fest around Tim Tebow. He is another player who plays with heart and intensity and passion unmatched by any of his teammates. The other star player on UF’s title team was Percy Harvin. He was commonly talked about being insanely fast and their most athletic player.

Again I ask, is Tebow really that un-athletic? Does he really try that much harder then Percy Harvin? Does Percy Harvin not have to try because he’s so athletic, or is it that he’s so athletic because he tries harder?

How did this stigma’s get attached to white and black players?

Are all white people bad athletes? Well even though I’ve ripped him before, the “Greatest Olympian Ever,” Michael Phelps is white. Doesn’t it take athletics to compete in the Olympics?

Are there any black athletes that are play with heart? What separates Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan from the Phil Michelsons and Charles Barkleys of the world? The extreme passion they have for the game and their unwillingness to loose; isn’t that the same as playing with heart?

Along with the stigma that white players play with more heart and black athletes are more at athletic is the stigma about certain sports being less racially diverse. For example, basketball is that the league is all black? Why is that?

Well we do know that yes there is a much higher percentage of black basketball players than white basketball players. To help answer this question I think we should look at another one of the big four sports that is dominated by one side, Hockey. Why does hockey have so many more white players then black players?

Here’s my theory on why these two sports have the racial makeup that they do. It all comes down to kids and money. Kids don’t have a lot of money to spend and yet they want to be active. So the kids get active by playing sports.

In the warmer parts of America or warmer countries (traditionally with higher black populations) would it be cheaper to have a kid play hockey or to play basketball? Hockey would require an indoor facility that has a frozen surface and colder air, which is not cheap to do. Transportation to and from the facility is also required. In contrast, basketball only requires a court, which can typically be found by most playgrounds (or even driveways), and a ball. Since it’s cheaper, a higher percentage of kids will be playing basketball and learning the basic skills needed to eventually excel at higher levels.

In the cold weather parts of America or cold weather countries (traditionally with high white populations) would it be cheaper to play hockey or to play basketball? Basketball would require the manual labor of shoveling the court as well as playing in big winter jackets that can restrict and hinder the shooting motion. Another, more expensive, alternative to this is to have an indoor facility that is heated. Again transportation to and from the facility is also required. On the other hand, it makes sense to play hockey in big winter coats, giving an extra layer of padding, that are often required to be outside in the cold weather. Frozen ponds, lakes and rivers are much more common so all that is required to play is a pair of skates, a stick, some kind of puck and some kind of goal (trash cans work well). Again since it’s cheaper, a higher percentage of kids will be playing hockey and learning the basic skills needed to eventually excel at higher levels.

Kids like playing what they know and if they are started at a young age could become pretty good at their sport by the time it starts becoming organized competition.

Are there exceptions to my theory? Of course, there are hundreds of exceptions.

Do I have all answers to why these stigmas exist? No, of course not. It is just something to think about next time you hear what great hustlers Tebow and Hansbrough are or the next time you hear that the NBA is a “thug league” and too black. Stigmas are what people make them. Changing stigmas are never easy but just because a stigma is attached to a player or a sport does not make it true.

Please leave your comments below if you agree or disagree with what I said in this article.